Questions & Answers on Radio Drama
by Gordon House

Gordon became Head of the BBC World Service Drama team in 1985; a job he held for 16 years, commissioning a small number of plays but mainly concentrating on making radio adaptations of some of the world's great stage plays, and as part of the brief was representing United Kingdom culture to a world audience, it supplied the opportunity to make radio productions of work by Britain's finest dramatists; from Shakespeare to Sheridan, from David Edgar to David Hare, and especially Alan Ayckbourn. From April 2001 to March 2005 Gordon was Head of BBC Radio Drama.

Here Gordon gives some answers to questions posed by students.

Q: What advantages, if any, has radio got over any other medium?

Well, an obvious advantage is that a radio director can control your point of view. On stage Anthony might be making a big speech in Julius Caesar, but your attention could be taken by a Roman citizen desperate to blow his nose; on radio this could never happen. The director controls what you hear.

Q: Is that it?

No - much more importantly for me, it’s the most personal of media. When I watch a film or a TV play, I can get extremely involved with the characters and situations, but I never feel that this work of art has been made for my benefit alone. But the very best radio plays (and only the very best) draw me into scenes in such a way that I feel I’m eavesdropping on real people. And they’re performing for me alone.

Q: You mean the pictures are better?

Yes - as our mythical little boy is once supposed to have said. The pictures are better because you have to draw them yourself, rather than have them drawn for you. Radio makes the listener work harder to envisage who characters are or what makes them tick; but if the production succeeds in doing this, the results can be extraordinarily powerful, in a very personal way.

Q: How as a director do you help create these pictures for people?

A radio drama director has five colours in his palette. There are the words that form the basis of the story being told; this, of course, the most important element of all. Radio drama thrives on a good story, and no amount of brilliant acting will compensate for a story poorly told or poorly written.

Q: But it’s the actors who bring that story to life, isn’t it?

Exactly. Bad acting is the death-knell of radio drama. If an audience ever gets the feeling that words are simply being read off a page, then their “willing suspension of disbelief” is destroyed in an instant. Pace, timing, truthfulness are all-important is this medium. While great acting might make an average play better, poor acting can ruin a well-written script.

Q: What are your other colours?

There are sound effects to help you paint those pictures; these need to be used sparingly, and not necessarily completely “truthfully”. Imagine we’re having a conversation in a noisy college canteen. Your ears latch on to the person who’s talking, so you can hear quite plainly what he or she is saying. But stick a microphone on the college table, record that same conversation and play it back, and all you would hear would be a cacophony of noise. The director has to select what sounds he wants you, the listener, to hear.

Q: And you can use music too, can’t you?

You can indeed. But again you have to be careful how you do this. Music can enhance the emotional temperature of a scene, but it can also be used as a cheap way of conveying feelings that a director has been unable to unlock from his actors. Many a good film is ruined by being drowned in music. Moreover you have to be careful if you’re adding music behind a scene to make sure that the audience doesn’t imagine the music is actually part of the action. A man attempting to make love to a woman might well put on a CD to create a romantic atmosphere. How would this differ from a director adding romantic music to this same scene as a backdrop to the action?

Q: So music, words, sound FX…. What else do you have?

A: You have perspective. A woman sees a man being murdered in a field from the kitchen window of her country cottage. The murdered man’s cries are some distance from the microphone; this immediately creates a picture of what is happening. A listener can’t see the field, or the kitchen – but the perspective, allied to the words and FX, makes it quite clear what is happening.

Q: Anything else?

Yes. There is (PAUSE) silence. I hate “ping-pong dialogue” – A speaks, B speaks, A speaks, B speaks, neither one over-lapping or leaving any pauses; it’s not how we talk in real life. And silence can be so effective on radio; the lingering pause that a man might make before confessing his love to his girlfriend; the lover consumed with jealousy, unable to articulate just how angry he feels; the astonished silence that greets some unexpected revelation from a distant relative. Silence is one of the most valuable and sharpest colours on a radio director’s palette.

Q: Is there anything a radio drama can’t do?

Well obviously a drama that strongly relies on visual detail would be very hard to pull off in a non-visual medium. There’s one act in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off that is entirely reliant on what the audience sees. This would be an impossible scene to direct on radio. Similarly Tom Stoppard’s After Magritte is a jeu d’esprit that depends on the actors at the beginning and the end of the short play replicating a Magritte painting. Again that would hardly work on radio. But they are rare examples of what you can’t do; think what you can do. You can set a radio play anywhere; inside somebody’s stomach, at the bottom of the ocean or in the further outreaches of space. And your heroes can be microbes or starfish or aliens. One of the plays that first attracted me to working in the medium was a delightful radio drama by Don Haworth entitled On a Day in a Garden in Summer where three garden weeds contemplate their likely extermination.

Q How is acting for radio different from acting for the stage?

The obvious difference is that while a stage actor still needs to be truthful, he also needs to be heard. If you’re a punter sitting in the Upper Circle you would be thoroughly unimpressed if actors acted as if they were in a radio play, where you don’t need to project from the diaphragm, but simply talk as you would do in normal life. One can’t, of course, convey anything visually in a sound-only medium, and some actors try to compensate for this by adding lots of what my colleague Hilary Norrish used to called “nesting” moments: grunts, sighs, or coughs - in a vain attempt to give “colour” to a performance. But too often these are times when performance takes over from truth. Though another of the great advantages of radio is that if nesting becomes too prominent it is the easiest thing in the world to fix – to “edit out” - unlike in a visual medium where sound must be synched to action.

Q: Is the experience you get listening to a play different to watching that same play on stage?

It can be very different. Alan Ayckbourn plays are good examples. Go and watch a play like Just Between Ourselves in the theatre, and you’ll spend a lot of your time laughing. But listen to this same play on the radio and you understand far more why Ayckbourn calls his dramas “tragedies with laughs.” Without the shared experience of a theatre audience convulsing up with laughter, this so called “comedy” – about a man literally driving his wife mad – is a much bleaker, darker experience.

Who are the favourite writers you’ve worked with?

That’s a really difficult question to answer. Though if you’re talking about writers who write – or wrote – almost exclusively for the medium, I’d single out three – one living and two dead. Don Haworth and Peter Tinniswood are sadly no longer with us, but they both had wonderfully idiosyncratic voices, and the ability to take you on dramatic journeys where you never quite distinguish what was real and what was fantastical. For instance, Peter wrote an extraordinary play called The Goalkeeper’s Boo-Boo which at one level is simply the story of a European cup-tie (Peter was a great football-lover) where our hero – a goalkeeper – makes a dreadful last-minute error which costs his side the match. But wrapped around this simple story are all manners of bizarre and fantastical sub-plots, some of them comic (the radio commentary on the match features a commentator who constantly makes ridiculous literary references to John Donne and Virginia Woolf) and some really unexpectedly moving, such as our goalkeeper’s unrequited passion for a “Miss Chilton” who is a secretary at a factory where he works when he is not playing football. But hey - what Premier League footballer works in a factory?! Peter jumps backwards and forwards in time, in focus, and in styles, while underpinning his dramas – and particularly this one - with an extraordinarily powerful poetic drive; he was a master wordsmith.

Q: And who’s your living writer?

There are many excellent radio writers plying their trade; amongst those with whom I’ve personally worked, Mike Walker, Marcy Kahan, Rachel Joyce, Tanika Gupta, Christopher William Hill , Katy Hims, Peter Souter, Shelly Silas, invariably produce quality drama. Terri-Ann Brumby ‘s The Benefit of Time is one of my favourite plays. The novelist Rose Tremain is a joy to work with – as is Sarah Daniels. Steve Walker has a brilliantly individual voice. Ken Blakeson, Stephen Dunstone, Robert Ferguson and Carey Harrison wrote magnificent radio dramas for me – and I’ve loved remaking some of Tom Stoppard’s early radio plays. Gregory Evans is a wonderful dramatiser. There are many others I could mention. But one writer who is a complete master of the medium is Nick Warburton. His plays are often deceptively simply; not a great deal seems to happen – but bubbling away beneath the surface is a maelstrom of human emotion, rarely made obvious but always there. His plays often reduce me to tears.

Q: Anybody you’ve been in awe of?

They’re too numerous to mention! But I always try to treat everybody in the drama studio the same way. If you start deferring to a “star”, you quickly lose the respect of the other actors around you.

Actually one man I was always a little in awe of wasn’t an actor at all – he was the politician Tony Benn. I met him a few times when I was a Studio Manager recording political interviews at Bush House, and I have to say that his famed politeness was tinged with a wisp of sulphur. He made a point of recording any interview himself, on a small portable device, explaining to his perplexed interrogator that he would be listening back to the broadcast programme, comparing the two versions, and woe betide him if any changes had been made. When a producer pointed out that cuts were invariably made to recordings in order to fit them into the required broadcasting time, Tony would ask how long his particular interview was expected to be. “We’re looking for about two and a half minutes” the producer would say. Out would come a stopwatch, and Benn would talk for precisely two and a half minutes - and not a second more. It was an education just to watch him. (.....My father worked in nuclear power and met Energy Minister Tony Benn on a number of occasions; he too told me about Benn taking out his stopwatch and cassette recorder when being interviewed by reporters - Ed)

Q: What’s your favourite play? One that you’ve produced?

It’s always – or nearly always – the play I’m working on! I honestly don’t have a favourite production, but the play that produced the most favourable audience reaction was a technically very straightforward one-set drama called Goldfish Girl by Peter Souter. One actor spends the whole forty-five minutes in a hospital bed; her visitor is the husband that she doesn’t recognise (she has suffered a brain aneurysm.) It’s a simple set-up – but packs an extraordinarily powerful punch.

Q: Are “simple” radio dramas always the best ones?

Not at all. I’d advise you to listen to some of the work directed by Jon Dryden, such as Fatherland, Q& A, or - very topical this - Pandemic. Here is a director who creates huge explosions of sound, and often very complex scenarios. Listening to his plays is like listening to film soundtracks; but they generally work wonderfully well. Simplicity – complexity – Radio Drama encompasses them both.

Q: Should the best radio dramas educate and inform as well as entertain?

There are no rules that say what a drama should or shouldn’t do – but I believe all good plays, even those written “simply to entertain” have some informative and educational value. Problems can arise when there is tension between creating good drama, and getting your message across. After I retired I worked for a short period in Guyana as a consultant on an Aids-based Soap Opera. The American funders of this enterprise were - understandably – keen to make sure that specific “learning outcomes” were reached at specific moments in the drama; their writers were more concerned with making sure they were telling truthful dramatic stories. I generally supported the writers. Unless a drama creates believable characters, who a listener cares about, and with whom he or she can empathise, any underlying message (even a simple one such as “use a condom when having sex!”) will completely fail to register.

Q: What is the worst piece of radio direction you’ve ever given?

It was probably in a rather uninspired Agatha Christie play I produced for World Service. I told one actor “Stop playing the part as if you’re the murderer, Michael! You’re not!”

He replied, “Actually I am, Gordon.”

Q Isn’t Radio a dying medium? Has Radio Drama really got any future?

I don’t know about radio drama, but I am sure there will always be audio drama. As long as people like being told stories, there will be a place for sound-only drama; the purest form of story-telling. The distribution method – whether it’s through radio, an iPad, your computer, or some new form of disseminator yet to be invented – is unimportant. Listening to a story in sound which (unlike vision) you can experience while doing something else – driving, running, travelling in a train or bus – is too enjoyable an experience to sacrifice.

I am sure, incidentally, that the radio medium itself will outlive me and my children. Its death-knell has been sounded many times in the last fifty years, with film, television, the compact disk, the DVD, all expected to destroy it. Yet radio continues to flourish, and radio drama with it.

I am indebted to Gordon House for permission to publish this piece.Copyright belongs to GH.

( ......Many thanks ...........ND, Apr. 2021)


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